Community leaders, and neighbors celebrate graduates at Mount Carmel Baptist Church

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For Blake Smith, education is essential.

Following his great grandmother's lead, Smith says he understood the importance of working hard to accomplish his goals at an early age.

She was his inspiration.

“I put in a lot of hard work ever since kindergarten, like 13 years,” Blake Smith said. “It feels amazing.”

About 80 people made of community leaders and neighbors gathered Saturday morning at Mount Carmel Baptist Church to recognize Smith and another graduating high school student for their dedication to education through the years. They hope to inspire others in the region.

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Smith's great-grandmother was born on a slave plantation. She attended school until eighth grade when her schooling ended. She traveled to a boarding school to continue her education, graduating as valedictorian, before earning her master's degree.

Smith, who is graduating from Buchholz High School's entrepreneurship magnet program, said he would often visit his 97-year-old great grandmother in an Alabama nursing home until she passed in 2017. She would often tell him that if someone born on a plantation can accomplish greatness, so can he.

“She would say ‘Whatever you do, work hard in school," said Smith's grandmother, Barbara. "Education is the key to moving up in society."

Blake Smith, 18, plans to attend Florida Atlantic University.

Much of the same can be said for Christopher Morgan, 17, who joined the Manhood Youth Development Foundation in fifth grade and was also celebrated at Saturday's event.

The goal of the Manhood Youth Development Foundation is to increase African American graduation rates, founder Charlie Jackson said. Morgan, who is graduating from Gainesville High School, said the program helped him stay out of trouble and taught him to respect himself and women, adding that he also learned about Black history in the program.

He plans to study journalism at Santa Fe College before transferring to Florida A&M.

“Black kids don’t (always) make it through high school," he said. "They drop out or even their life is taken before they can graduate, so it shows how I can beat odds and show everybody that you can succeed in life."

Morgan said he wants to stay in Gainesville to care for his grandmother, Mary, but one day would like to become a sports analyst.

Morgan and Smith's mothers organized the celebration. They lived just three homes from one another as children.

“We were best friends growing up, to have our boys be the same way, in Gainesville, it's been everything,” Jennifer Morgan said. “We share church together, we share a neighborhood together, we share family together.”

Both boys called several attendees “aunties and uncles” due to their tight-knit connections.

Alachua County School Board member and family neighbor Leanetta McNealy said she feels like a grandmother to the young men who she watched grow from birth.

“I am excited for them, and I hope they will meet all of their dreams and aspirations,” McNealy said.

As Smith and Morgan returned to their seats, donned in caps and gowns, Rodney McNealy led the group in a prayer. Everyone bowed their heads.

“We thank you right now for the lessons and the fact that they were able to persevere, overcome and achieve. Lord, we just thank you right now. We want you to continue to protect these two young men…because it is a cruel, cruel world out there.”

Amen, the community chanted.

This article originally appeared on The Gainesville Sun: Mount Carmel Baptist Church members, neighbors celebrate graduates